Flannery O’Connor, in her book of essays titled “Mystery and Manners,” writes passionately about chickens. Her chickens. One of them, a “buff Cochin Bantam,” became renowned for its ability to walk both forward and backward, and a reporter soon came to snap a photo of it for the printed page.
O’Connor began to collect chickens thereafter, a “mild interest became a passion, a quest” and she had to collect more and more of the birds. She loved the oddly colored ones, the ones with the strangely shaped combs, the ones with the too-long necks. One in particular she named Colonel Eggbertmade and she sewed for him a “white pique coat with a lace collar and two buttons in the back.”
We don’t seem to know chickens as well as we could, there being a juncture between oven-roasted “chicken” and walking, chirruping “chickens.” O’Connor knew the names and breeds of the chickens she interacted with and they likely fed her through egg or through flesh. To know and respect these animals is a choice, and it is this juncture that I have been trying to mend with the realization that I cannot kill the animals I eat, even while I know that I am consuming the bodies of animals that once walked. Guilty feelings sweep up in me when I see that I have had a choice to mend or leave gaping this cognitive chasm between killed animals and meat — a choice with which Jonathan Safran Foer confronts us in his book “Eating Animals.”
There is a play on words in the title of Foer’s book, too, and with the words “Eating Animals” we are given a relative choice on how to view the name itself. It’s easy to assume at first glance that the title alludes to the act of consuming animals, the choices concerned with it and the guilt associated with re-assessing what you eat because, as vegans, vegetarians and other diet-conscious people insist, a hamburger is a choice. Turning the phrase around in the second half of the book, Foer insists that we are irrevocably, unchangingly, eating animals — animals who eat. Alternatively, we don’t really have a choice on this matter. We are given bodies and stomachs, and we must use them to survive.
Foer writes about visiting a pig slaughterhouse where he watches pigs herded to be shot in the head — some wait calmly in line while some lie on their sides on the muddy ground, shaking and convulsing due to cardiac arrest and stress. In the middle of this horrific scene, a worker offers him a “sample.” She arrives clutching a plate piled high with ham. Foer insists “Something deep inside me … doesn’t want the meat inside my body. For me, that meat is not something to be eaten.” And still, one line down, he amends himself, “And yet something deep inside me does want to eat it.”
Foer confronts us with a choice in eating, but at the same time, we don’t have that choice. As I’ve been reading more and more about the food I consume, it seems like there’s a great deal of suffering that comes pre-packaged with everything I eat. Eggs, milk and meat can be produced by unsavory factory-farming processes and slaughtering methods. Fruit, vegetables and grains can be grown under unfair labor practices and unhealthy pesticide usages. The only way to avoid this guilt is to grow my own vegetables and raise my own chickens, which I resolve to do.
The distinction and choice between “chicken” and “chickens” is different when you grow up with them — you see the way they walk, cluck, huddle, strut and then disperse when you walk into a straw-lined pen of them. One thing that was striking to me as I grew up raising chickens was how, when I went into the coop to gather eggs every morning, I would find several eggs sitting in clumps of bedding, each bigger than my small fist — it was only when I brought them back home that I realized, in comparison to the “extra-large” eggs bought at the supermarket, that these eggs were substantially bigger. The chickens’ eggs wouldn’t even fit in the empty egg cartons bought from the store, their round bottoms propped over the cup of the carton.
The chickens were happier, with the gratuitous amount of feed we would fling around the chicken coop area, and about five chickens would have the space to walk in a pen the size of the room I live in currently. But a great deal of chicken we eat barely sees those conditions, their bodies genetically engineered to basically starve while producing the greatest amount of eggs possible in their short lifespans.
Natalie Portman read “Eating Animals” and wrote in an essay for the Huffington Post that the book turned her from a vegetarian into a vegan activist, pushing her to cut out the dairy and egg products that had previously been staples in her diet and promote the idea of awareness of meat. The idea of the testimonial here is interesting too, as Foer’s website for the book consists mainly of forums in which readers share their reactions to the book and how they have refined their ways of thinking about meat.
The community found in groups of people coming together not eating something is strangely ironic — it is a revised Norman Rockwell painting for the 21st century, where the centerpiece around which the family gathers lacks the 25-pound turkey or the outrageously large ham hock, where we are united instead by a willing awareness of the practices put into making meat and the practices of consuming it. I am an eating animal — I have no choice on the matter. If I choose to eat animals, however, it will be done with purpose.